DLC – Downloadable Contentment, or Contention?
Love it or hate it, it seems that downloadable games and content are here to stay. Unfortunately, I suspect this has less to do with what gamers want, and more to do with it being an easy and cost effective way to get money out of gamers by the publishers, without having to cut in the retail middle man.
I’m not entirely adverse to DLC in principle, before anyone suspects that the following will be one long-winded one-sided tirade, but there are enough aspects of the model to make me stop and wonder if this is really the direction we want the games industry to take. If anything, I was something of an eager early advocate (just look at the list of stuff I’ve purchased from Xbox Live Arcade, the Wii Shop Channel and Steam), and have only recently realised that there are some serious considerations to… well… consider.
Increasingly there is an alarming trend to bring out so-called Day One DLC, where content is available, either at a price or free to people who preorder, from the moment a game hits retail. In some cases, even before that. When I see this, I have the same question form in my mind before I’m even aware of thinking it; why wasn’t this included on the game disk? I think it’s a fair enquiry. And I don’t really buy into any of the bullshit PR answers coming out of the various service providers, especially Microsoft whose Live Marketplace is especially prone to this kind of thing.
In fact, the phenomenon isn’t exclusive to Day One DLC. Very often an “expansion” pack comes out, be it a level or a character, which seems as though it should have been included from the start. When I first played through Assassin’s Creed II last year, I was infuriated to reach a point in the advanced stages of the game and be told that two segments of Desmond’s ancestral memories were “corrupted” and unplayable, having spent £80 on preordering the supposedly definitive Black Edition of the game. I immediately tweaked to the fact that this would be Ubisoft’s way of shoehorning DLC into what is a story-driven single-player experience, and therefore seemingly an unnatural fit to the DLC add-on model. I hadn’t seen any announcement about it, I hadn’t been aware that this happened in the game at all up to that point, but immediately it took me outside the gaming experience and filled me with intense irritation. This was further aggravated only recently with the release of the second of these cut sections of story, when an option was given to pay for a version of the download that includes the previously Black Edition exclusive tombs content. I paid a lot of money for the Black Edition to get content that is now being given away for a few hundred Microsoft points to anyone with the basic edition. It’s cynical, and makes you feel like an idiot for giving your early support to the game by spending the extra on the Black Edition. Essentially I have paid eighty quid for something because of content that now anyone can get for about two pounds, and I STILL don’t have the entire game, not until I pay even more for the two missions, which I can think of no good reason for cutting in the first place. Other than to make more money, of course.
Worse than the blatant grasping for more of my increasingly slender quantities of uncommitted personal funds, is Bioware’s new policy of cutting content from the disk in order to offer it for free, but only to people who buy a new copy of their games, supposedly to cut down on their losses to the second-hand market and piracy. I’d be more sympathetic if Dragon Age and Mass Effect 2 hadn’t been major releases that were guaranteed (and easily achieved) high sales figures, Mass Effect 2 in particular pushing 2 million copies in a week. There is, again, an air of cynicism, even dare I say, signs of EA’s stained fingers soiling the reputation of a very highly regarded company. And if I had been angry at Assassin’s Creed II for making it clear that I would have to pay more at a later date to complete the game, it was nothing to the vitriolic rush I got upon finding an NPC character standing in my party’s camp site in Dragon Age, trying to sell me DLC that was available right now from within the game itself, utterly shattering the illusion of immersion in the game world for the sake of 500 Microsoft points. Furthermore, nobody wins from it, as it has backfired on Bioware due to my reacting by vowing never to purchase that DLC pack. Those people who did click on the purchase option when it came up during their games better not tell me who they are either, as to my mind they’re excusing this sort of crap and ensuring it continues, and I’m liable to vent at them with equal rage to that I would direct at the people actively responsible. My previous review of Mass Effect 2 on this site was a long love-letter to Bioware; this is balance, and long overdue too. It seems that no company can go without doing something to spoil my pure appreciation of their work.
Not all DLC is quite so frustratingly obvious. It can be a great way of supporting a game’s community by releasing additional maps and missions months after a game is released, and breathe new life into a previously exhausted title. I’m especially happy to put my money down for Forza 3’s regularly adding additional cars and race tracks, because the game itself came with a lot of both in the first place, and it doesn’t feel like something was deliberately withheld from me so that I could buy it again later. Games with a strong multiplayer aspect similarly are complimented by additional online modes and maps to spice things up for veteran players.
As well as additional content, it is becoming more common for services to offer entire games through download, such as Direct-to-Drive, Steam, Impulse, and Live Games on Demand. The issue I take with this is simply that I personally like having something physical in my hands, that I can display in my collection and know is there whenever the whim catches me to play, without having to wait for download, or having to worry about how much space is free on my PC or console hard drive. It’s one thing to download a complete game that hasn’t been given a general retail release on disk, but I’ve an aversion to downloading a game that I can hold in my hands. Adding insult to injury is the matter of the pricing; in many instances, games are cheaper on disk, still new and unsealed too, in clearance sales, bargain bins, or through eBay than if I were to buy the downloadable copy.
But by far my biggest concern with downloadable content and games is whether or not I’ll always have them to hand. Let’s face it; the Xbox 360 is hardly a paragon of reliability. The consoles have an alarming tendency to die and leave a distinct red semi-circle behind. In April, Xbox Live will be dropping its support of the original Xbox console. What I would like to know is how this affects content bought from Live Marketplace. I don’t actually own an original Xbox, but what happens now will give a pretty clear indication of how things will likely proceed when it is time for the Xbox 360 to similarly be consigned to the past, and be superseded.
When you purchase content on Live, it is licensed to the console you bought it on, as well as your Live account. What this means is that you can play that content on the original console you bought it on, regardless of which gamertag you use, but if you want to play it on another console, you have to be signed into the online service with the gamertag that originally purchased it, so that it can verify you have a right to access that content. It is possible to transfer an XBLA or DLC license to a new console, but only once every 12 months, and it also transfers the license of all your content; the tool, Microsoft say, is to consolidate your purchases to your current console, so you can’t pick and choose what gets transferred.
This raises a question. What if, when Live support for the 360 ends, your console then dies and you replace it with another that you get cheaply on eBay so that you can continue to play your favourite 360 games? You could transfer over your hard drive from one console to the other, and retain your DLC and games in terms of data, but would it let you actually access them? Will the dropped support mean that you simply lose online multiplayer, or will it also mean that you can no longer transfer DLC licenses? And what if you own more than one console? I have a 360 in my bedroom, and one downstairs in the living room for the family to use. At the moment I can download content on the family box, meaning everyone can play it, and then verify my ownership on my personal Xbox via my gamertag and internet connection. When Live support ends, will it still verify my gamertag online and tell the second console that it’s okay to let me play my games? It’s not clear, and that worries me.
The Nintendo Wii has no such ambiguity. They openly state that if your console buys the farm, any content you buy from the Shop channel is gone forever unless you pay a second time, as you can’t transfer the content licenses to another machine. Admittedly the Wii is a much more reliable piece of hardware than the 360, but the possibility of hardware failure is still something that hangs over me whenever I decide to purchase a Virtual Console or Wiiware title.
I still play 30 year old Atari games, and 20 year old Nintendo and SEGA games. Nostalgia will strike, I’ll drag them out, dust them down, and start playing (admittedly, it helps if you take very good care of them, which I do, but not everyone would find it so simple to get their old games running). I want to know that I’ll be able to do that with my Xbox 360 games and content, in another 30 years time, assuming there’s a 360 on Earth that isn’t permanently red-ringed by that point. If downloadable gaming means that at some point the games I’ve bought will stop working, or become inaccessible, in comparison to the relative simplicity of loading a cartridge or a disk, I’m not interested in gaming becoming more and more drawn over from physical releases to digital.
DLC and downloadable games could potentially be a very good thing, for developers, publishers, and gamers. But in the rush to progress, I think its worth pausing for breath, and to make sure that it is done properly. I don’t want my games to just vanish into the internet void some day. If this model is to be more widely adopted, and some people are already claiming that it is the entire future for games releases, certain guarantees are going to need to be put in place to protect gamers. It also wouldn’t hurt if games companies stopped treating their customers with contempt for their collective intelligence by employing cynical marketing tactics, or excluding content obviously from games with the intent of making more money arbitrarily later on by packaging it as an add-on.
If done right, the only people who stand to lose out are GAME, Gamestation, and other stores that make a lot of money from the second hand disk market. And that’s hardly any loss at all.
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